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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Norwegian Air CEO pledges rock-bottom trans-Atlantic fares with his growing Boeing fleet

Norwegian Air plans to roll out trans-Atlantic airfares from as low as $75 one way, between Ireland or Scotland and the U.S. East Coast, starting this summer. The low-cost carrier also plans to offer flights from Seattle to London on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. (Norwegian Air)
By Dominic Gates The Seattle Times

Starting in June, Norwegian Air Chief Executive Bjørn Kjos promises the cheapest trans-Atlantic airfares U.S. travelers have ever seen – as low as $75 one way, flying on a new Boeing 737 MAX between Ireland or Scotland and the U.S. East Coast.

Further out, pending approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) of Norwegian’s U.K. subsidiary, Kjos says he’ll greatly expand the carrier’s global network, including a plan to offer low-cost flights from Seattle to London on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

In an interview while in Seattle to speak at a gathering of Boeing executives, Kjos said that second step would mean such potential growth for Norwegian that “I would subscribe to many more 787s as soon as we get the DOT approval.”

In just three and a half years, Kjos has blazed a trail to make Norwegian Air into a long-haul, low-cost airline that’s upset the big U.S. international carriers. He promises to disturb them even more with the low-fare expansion he has planned.

Kjos’ strategy has been to expand way beyond Norway. He created subsidiaries in Ireland and the U.K. to take advantage of agreements those countries have to fly freely into many parts of the world, especially in Asia.

To realize his growth plans, he needs DOT approval to recognize those subsidiaries. After a three-year fight, the Obama administration in December finally granted the needed permit for Norwegian’s Irish subsidiary.

With Brexit promising to take the U.K. out of Europe and London Gatwick now Kjos’ largest European base, he also needs the DOT to separately approve his U.K. operation.

That would allow him to operate long-haul 787s to Asia and to the U.S., with complete flexibility for the same jets to fly east or west out of London.

If he gets that, he said he plans to expand hugely into Asia; for example, he envisions offering the many Asian tech workers in Seattle low-cost flights to India or China via London.

In other words, he’d be taking on Emirates out of Seattle, as well as British Airways.

Kjos foresees “huge growth potential” in low-fare international flights.

“More people will start flying,” he said. “The fares go lower, but the volume goes much higher.”

Norwegian is expanding rapidly in the U.S. It already flies 787 Dreamliner widebody jets into large airports including Boston, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Those include premium fares around $600 one-way between Europe and U.S. East Coast cities, and economy fares at half that.

In May, he’ll get the first new 737 MAX, the new Boeing narrowbody jet.

Norwegian will fly that jet, with even lower fares, on thinner routes from cities like Dublin and Cork in Ireland or Edinburgh in Scotland, into smaller U.S. airports including Stewart International, north of New York city, and Providence, Rhode Island.

He’s working on closing an agreement with Ryanair that would feed passengers from its European low-cost carrier network into his Irish and Scottish flights.

Kjos said he’ll take delivery of six Boeing 737 MAXs this year and another nine 787-9 Dreamliners. He’s already announced two more U.S. crew bases to add to the existing bases in New York and Fort Lauderdale and says more announcements are coming soon.

The big U.S. airlines and pilot unions have accused Norwegian of unfair competition through paying lower wages, including the use of lower-paid Thai flight crews.

He hotly denies that, saying his American crews are paid U.S. wages and that his Bangkok-based flight crews do not fly to the U.S. but only between Thailand and Europe.

“This political nonsense is just trying to limit access to low fares,” he said.

Intense political opposition from the U.S. airlines and unions held back Norwegian’s first DOT permit – the one for its Irish subsidiary – for three years before it was granted.

In January, the same interests began lobbying the new Trump administration to claw back what Obama had given.

But that hasn’t happened yet, and Kjos is optimistic that Trump won’t do so.

“We’ll have almost 1,000 crew members in the U.S. by the end of this year. We are flying millions of European tourists into the U.S. We are creating a lot of jobs. And we fly Boeing aircraft,” Kjos said. “We are doing exactly the things Trump wants everybody to do.”